Victorian society was open to the occult and secret societies flourished. The Steampunk universe has not remained in the sidelines of this influence and it can be tracked in emblematic works such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic book series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, publication of which began in 1999) or the movie ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (2009) with the appearance of the fictional Temple of the Four Orders, featuring the layered symbolism of imagery such as sphinxes, alchemical symbols, pentagrams, crosses…
4.1.- Occult Science
19th century was a period of renewed interest in magic, considering it the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural entities or the forces of nature. European colonialism put Westerners in contact with India and Egypt, re-introducing exotic beliefs and renewing interest in exotic spiritualities (Hindu and Egyptian mythology frequently feature in 19th century magical texts).
The idea of Occult Science appears in 19th century occultism, especially Theosophy. Occult Science is the systematic research into or formulation of occult concepts in a manner that follows -in its method or presentation- the way natural science researches or describes phenomena of the physical world. The aim is to synthesize or integrate scientific and occult concepts and fuse them into something that may be greater than either alone.
Please keep in mind that the occult (from the Latin word occultus ‘clandestine, hidden, secret’) is ‘knowledge of the hidden’. It refers normally to ‘knowledge of the paranormal’, as opposed to ‘knowledge of the measurable’, usually referred to as science. For most practicing occultists it is simply the study of a deeper spiritual reality that extends beyond pure reason and the physical sciences.
The late 19th century spawned a large number of magical organizations, including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and specifically magical variants on Freemasonry.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
Commonly known as The Golden Dawn, it was a magical order active in Great Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which practiced theurgy and spiritual development. Its three founding members were Freemasons and members of Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. Influences on Golden Dawn concepts and work include Christian mysticism, Qabalah, Hermeticism, the religion of Ancient Egypt, Theurgy, Freemasonry, Alchemy, Theosophy, Eliphas Levi, Papus, Enochian magic, and Renaissance grimoires.
The Golden Dawn was the first of three Orders often collectively referred to as the ‘Golden Dawn’:
- The First Order taught esoteric philosophy based on the Hermetic Qabalah and personal development through study and awareness of the four Classical Elements as well as the basics of astrology, tarot divination, and geomancy.
- The Second or “Inner” Order, the Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis (the Ruby Rose and Cross of Gold), taught proper magic, including scrying, astral travel, and alchemy
- The Third Order was that of the ‘Secret Chiefs’, who were said to be highly skilled; they supposedly directed the activities of the lower two orders.
Just to name a few, Arnold Bennet, Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker, Charles Williams and W. B. Yeats were some of its known or alleged members.
Sometime between 1903 and 1913 was renamed as Alpha et Omega. This decision was taken because of a rebellion of adepts in London and the disrepute of its original name due to a public scandal.
Concepts of magic and ritual at the center of contemporary practices, such as Wicca and Thelema, were inspired by this organization.
This order was officially formed in New York City in 1875 to advance the spiritual principles and search for Truth (known as Theosophy). Its initial objective was the study and elucidation of Occultism, the Qabalah, etc. Some of its founders were also interested in Eastern religions and two of them, Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, moved to India and established the International Headquarters. Gradually the Society’s objectives evolved to be:
- The formation of a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity.
- The encouragement of the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
- The investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
Theosophy is an active philosophical school today, and through a process of schism has also given rise to other mystical, philosophical and religious beliefs and organizations.
4.2.- Investigating the ‘paranormal’
Vampire killing kits were commonly available to people travelling to Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is consistent with a belief in a very real threat. Others see a direct relationship with the publication of Bram Stoker’s best seller ‘Dracula’ in 1897. With reference to a Sotheby’s auction, Elaine Whitmire stated that she believed that particular kit was sold as a souvenir: ‘my opinion is this is a memento that you bought while you were in Europe. I doubt it was cheap to buy’. Did Victorians really believe in vampires? Events like ‘The Great New England Vampire Panic’ may give us food for thought…
I have used vampires as introductory example, but the paranormal aroused great interest, giving rise to research initiatives like The Ghost Club.
The Ghost Club
Founded in London in 1836, The Ghost Club is believed to be the oldest organization in the world dedicated to the research of the paranormal. Its prime interest focuses on paranormal phenomena such as ghosts and hauntings.
The Ghost Club counted amongst its early members Charles Dickens, Cambridge academics and clergymen. Since then, it has welcomed members such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir William Crookes, Arthur Koestler, Sir Julian Huxley, Sir Osbert Sitwell, W. B. Yeats, Peter Cushing…
By the way, the Steampunk community has enthusiastically embraced the paranormal. Some examples? What about The Apparition Abolishers or The League of S.T.E.A.M. (Supernatural and Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management), a.k.a. the ‘Steampunk Ghostbusters’, comic books such as ‘Lady Mechanika’ or ‘Boston Metaphysical Society’, or literary hits like ‘Soulles’ | Parasol Protectorate (2009) and ‘The Greyfriar’ | Vampire Empire (2010) -vampires by Gail Carriger and Clay & Susan Griffith respectively- or ‘Boneshaker’ | The Clockwork Century (2009) -zombies by Cherie Priest-?
Bonus.- have you watched ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf’ (Le Pacte des loups, 2001)? Or brilliant movies directed by Tim Burton like ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (1999) and ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ (2007)?